If you have weekend plans, the television executives are betting they do not involve watching the tube. Although we are awash in “quality programming,” Friday and Saturday are a wasteland. Outside of Saturday Night Live, there is not one series of consequence on either of those nights. What we watch and when we watch it have changed so much I wonder what it says about us.
As a child of the 1970’s I remember when things were quite different; Friday and Saturday nights were the television highlight of the week. The two greatest nightly line-ups ever filled those spots. For the 1971-1972 season, ABC rolled out a Friday night that included: The Brady Bunch, The Partridge Family, Room 222, The Odd Couple and Love, American Style. The next year, CBS’ Saturday night line-up was All in the Family, M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show and The Carol Burnett Show. Contrast that with today when the broadcast channels offer crime re-enactments on Friday and have no original series programs at all on Saturday. They just show “encores” from earlier in the week.
On the one hand, we could be glad that Friday and Saturday nights no longer mean three hours of inactivity in front of a screen. People are out and about, enjoying “real” culture. Movies, music, high tone-restaurants and the like. Or, if we are staying in, we are catching up on high-brow stuff like Game of Thrones or binging on House of Cards; Time Warner Cable runs an advertisement centered on the “binge all weekend” concept. No stopping progress, I guess.
But progress for whom? The beauty of the early 1970’s line-ups was in their family-friendly nature. Consider the genius of the ABC Friday night. Start with the Brady Bunch, which outside of Mike and Carol’s dead spouses (did you ever wonder exactly how they went?) was perfectly benign. The Partridge Family ramped up the sexiness just a notch; David Cassidy and Susan Dey were both heartthrobs and Shirley Jones could keep any dad interested. Time for Room 222 with its mild forays into social issues and the ultra-hot Karen Valentine. The Odd Couple came next; plenty of innuendo there. Oscar drank, played cards and entertained single lady friends. Finally, va-voom, the big finish, Love, American Style, with bikinis and short shorts, always ending in fireworks.
You knew exactly where you stood on the maturity scale by your Friday night bed time. Kids got to watch the Brady Bunch, real men and women were in for the long haul. Every 11-year old in America bargained with the baby sitter to see the last show. Being the older child, I thought the younger siblings had it too easy. Scott rode my coattails. By age eight, he was armed with enough knowledge to be a dangerous man.
Of course watching a TV Land re-run of any of these shows reveals how tame they were. Even All in the Family, one of the most controversial TV shows to ever air, confronted society’s demons in the context of a family that obviously loved one another. Plus, if Archie and Meathead incited a family argument, all was forgiven by the time Carol tugged her ear. The quality of the shows combined with the time they aired to allow families to watch and laugh together. We have all but lost that genre.
Disney owns the franchise for kids’ television; for anyone over 21 watching five minutes of a Disney show is like running a mental marathon. An achievable goal, but can the pain really be worth it? On the other hand, we have HBO, Showtime and AMC spinning sophisticated tales of debauchery and violence that give me nightmares, yet alone any pre-teen that stumbles in on them. The Sopranos is one of my all-time favorites, but its “family values” were beyond warped. Other than ABC’s Wednesday night line-up and “The Middle” in particular, I have a hard time bringing to mind shows that are simultaneously watchable for adults and suitable for children. My only problem with the Middle is that it falls in the middle of the week; who has time to sit down as a family then?
It may be the number of screens available or the ubiquity of recording devices has allowed this transformation. When there was only one screen in the house and you could not “capture” a broadcast, more incentive existed to make something that fit everyone’s taste. Now, dad is in the man cave watching near-porn; mom is in the living room with Scandal and junior is in his room playing X-box. Or it could be that the rise of reality television inevitably means the fall of family shows. Whatever the reason, family TV night is a thing of the past.
This is not an immediate problem for me; as an empty nester I can watch the sophisticated fare and sleep with a night light. But I wonder what I will watch with my grandchildren, assuming that day comes. If it is “Girl Meets World” one of us is going to need therapy. Hopefully, TV Land will keep showing re-runs. I bet I can interest them in the Partridge Family, 50 years after the fact. I probably will be more interested in Shirley Jones by then; I hope my grandson can deal with a high-definition version of Susan Dey.
P.S.: Other great 70’s series that aired on Friday or Saturday night, in rough chronological order: Get Smart, Hogan’s Heroes, My Three Sons, Green Acres, Petticoat Junction, Mannix, That Girl, Mission Impossible, Adam 12, Emergency, Streets of San Francisco, Sonny & Cher, Sanford & Son, Chico & the Man, The Rockford Files, Police Woman, Kung Fu, The Jeffersons, Starsky & Hutch, Love Boat, CHIPS, Dallas and Dukes of Hazzard.